Suspended Jail Sentence Given in S/Y Cheeki Rafiki Case

11 May 2018 By Laura Dunn

On May 11, Douglas Innes was given a “15-month jail sentence, suspended for two years” after being found guilty of failing to operate the 40.7-foot Beneteau S/Y Cheeki Rafiki in a safe manner. The firm, Stormforce Coaching Limited, was fined £50,000.  BBC News reports that Innes had been cleared of four counts of manslaughter by gross negligence on April 25.

The four men aboard S/Y Cheeki Rafiki set sail from Antigua May 4, 2014, for Southampton, UK, with skipper Andrew Bridge, 22, and Mate James Male, 33, who both worked for Stormforce Coaching Limited — Innes was the director of this now-closed management company. On board as crew were amateur sailors Steve Warren, 52, and Paul Goslin, 56. The yacht’s EPIRB sounded on May 16, prompting a U.S. search and rescue operation. The search was called off after three days, but a global outcry spurred the British government to persist, and they finally discovered Cheeki Rafiki’s upturned hull on May 23. The men’s bodies were never recovered.

The Marine Accident Investigation Branch (MAIB) declared that the yacht sank because her keel detached in deteriorating weather — U.S. Coast Guard reports say Cheeki Rafiki was sailing into 50-mph winds in 4.7-meter seas. According to the MAIB report, “A combined effect of previous groundings and subsequent repairs to its keel and matrix had possibly weakened the vessel’s structure where the keel was attached to the hull. It is also possible that one or more keel bolts had deteriorated.”

The Guardian also disclosed that even though the crew emailed Innes when the vessel began taking on water, he continued drinking at a UK pub — and even went to another location — before calling the Coast Guard when he later returned home. Even then, he did not explain the situation’s urgency.   

Notably, after acquitting Innes of manslaughter at the April 25 trial, the jury handed the judge a note voicing their concerns over yacht certification and testing, saying they were “deeply concerned” about “the regulations involved in this case. Pleasure and commercial regulations need to be clarified.”  

BBC News reports that Justice Nigel Teare, who sentenced Innes, said, “The failure to have the yacht surveyed was a serious act of negligence…This was a small yacht about to cross the Atlantic alone having not been independently examined for over three years. Those circumstances give rise to a risk of death.” The news outlet says Justice Teare called on maritime regulatory authorities to tighten yacht inspection rules.